An Expanded View of the Israelite Scapegoat

James L. Carroll, “An Expanded View of the Israelite Scapegoat,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2005 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 1–15.

An Expanded View of the Israelite Scapegoat

James L. Carroll

On the most holy day of the Israelite calendar, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies. There, at the mercy seat, he sprinkled the blood of a goat as an offering for the sins of the people. Then, emerging from the temple, he placed both his hands upon the head of another goat. He then confessed the sins of the people, symbolically bestowing their sins upon the head of the goat. This goat, known as the scapegoat, was then cast out into the wilderness (see Leviticus 16).

Christians have interpreted the meaning of the scapegoat in a wide variety of ways. Some see Jesus Christ in the goat that bears our iniquity and carries our burdens. Others see just the opposite: Satan himself who must be cast out and removed from the people. This argument is nearly as old as Christianity itself. For example, among the early Church fathers both Justin Martyr and Barnabas saw Christ in the scapegoat, [1] while both Clement and Irenaeus saw either the devil or a demon in the scapegoat. [2] The debate has continued up until the present day. [3] Even among Latter-day Saints both interpretations have been voiced. [4] How can there be such divergent interpretations of the same scriptural symbol, and which interpretation was intended by God when he revealed this ritual to Moses?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to view this rite in its larger scriptural context. There are many scripture stories about two individuals or groups where one is killed and the other is released or cast out. Analyzing these scriptural accounts can help us to understand the doctrinal themes of death and expulsion. By analyzing these greater themes, it is possible to see the scapegoat ritual in a larger context that can help explain its purpose and intended meaning.

We will first discuss the doctrines of death and expulsion (physical and spiritual death), then we will discuss various instances in which death and expulsion or release can be seen together in the scriptures, and finally we will discuss the various interpretations of the scapegoat ritual in terms of the examples.

Physical and Spiritual Death: The Two Penalties for Sin

Physical death is the separation of our bodies from our spirits. Spiritual death is our separation from God. These two deaths are penalties for violating divine law and are at the heart of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which overcame both physical and spiritual death for us. His Resurrection overcomes the effects of physical death for all, and His Atonement brings everyone back into the presence of the Father to be judged (see Alma 42:23). Then, if we have made use of Christ’s Atonement through the laws and ordinances of the gospel, we can remain in God’s presence; otherwise we suffer a second spiritual death by being removed from His presence a second time (see Helaman 14:15–19).

Both of these penalties can be seen in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. For example, God said to Adam, “Of the [fruit of the] tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17; emphasis added). This illustrates the penalty of physical death. Later, after Adam ate of the fruit of the tree, God “drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep [guard] the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). This illustrates the penalty of spiritual death, or expulsion from God’s presence.

Thus Adam and Eve needed the Atonement of Christ to overcome physical and spiritual death. Their subsequent use of the Atonement is chronicled in the book of Moses, and thus “Christ’s life is the story of giving the Atonement. The life of Adam and Eve is the story of receiving the Atonement.” [5]

We will now discuss several scriptural examples of when one individual or group is put to death while another is either cast out or released. These events will be important for our understanding of the Atonement and for our understanding of the ritual of the scapegoat. When making these comparisons we are not implying that these examples symbolize the Day of Atonement or that the Day of Atonement symbolizes them. These examples simply share important motifs with the Day of Atonement, such as death, banishment, release, and vicarious substitution. The examples are Christ and Satan in our pre-earth life, Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and the ram, Joseph and the goat, the lamb and the Exodus, the two birds in the ritual of the cleansing of the leper, and finally Christ and Barabbas. Many other examples could also be discussed (for example, the baker and the butler of Genesis 40, the Egyptian firstborn and the Israelites, or the red heifer of Numbers 19); however, an exhaustive discussion would be prohibitively long.

Christ and Satan

The first and perhaps most important example is from our pre-earth life. There Christ and Satan both stood before the Father, and the Father asked, “Whom shall I send?” Both answered, “Here am I, send me.” The Father then chose the first, and “the second was angry, and kept not his first estate” (Abraham 3:27–28). Satan was therefore “cast down” from the presence of God to the earth (see Moses 4:1–4). Many parallels could be drawn between this account and the ritual of the Day of Atonement. It is possible to compare God, Christ, and Satan with the priest, the Lord’s goat, and the scapegoat respectively. Both Christ and the Lord’s goat are chosen to die, while both Satan and the scapegoat are chosen for exile, and both God and the priest must choose between the two, selecting one for each role. Of course, as is the case with many symbols, the analogy is not perfect, since the scapegoat bore the sins of the people, while there is no indication that Satan bore anyone’s sins but his own.

Cain and Abel

When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was cast out “from the presence of the Lord” into “the land of Nod” (Genesis 4:16). The Hebrew word node literally means a place of wandering or exile, [6] a fit description of the wilderness into which the scapegoat is cast. Thus, in Cain and Abel, we have another instance where one brother is slain and another brother is exiled. It is therefore possible to see the Lord’s goat in Abel and the scapegoat in Cain. Again, however, the parallel is not perfect since Abel didn’t die for sins, [7] nor did Cain carry away anyone’s sins but his own.

Isaac and Ishmael

One of the more interesting examples of this scriptural theme is found in the lives of Isaac and Ishmael in Genesis 21–22. In Genesis 21, at the bidding of Sarah and with God’s assurance of their safety, Abraham sent both Ishmael and his mother away into “the wilderness of Beer-sheba” (Genesis 21:14). Then, in the very next chapter, Genesis 22, God commanded Abraham to take his other son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah and there sacrifice him to the Lord. Hugh W. Nibley says that according to Jewish tradition, “Isaac offered himself as a free-will sacrifice on the Day of Atonement with Abraham functioning as the High Priest at the altar.” [8] The comparison to the rite of the Day of Atonement is hard to miss, with Ishmael as the scapegoat, with Isaac as the Lord’s goat, and with Abraham functioning as the high priest. Although Ishmael did mock Isaac (see Genesis 21:9), there is no indication that Ishmael either sinned in any special way or that he carried away any sins into the wilderness. This is a departure from our previous two examples, where the one cast out was clearly cast out because of his sinful actions.

Isaac and the Ram

Once God commanded that Abraham should sacrifice Isaac, God’s justice demanded that Abraham do just that. However God’s mercy allowed a substitute to take Isaac’s place. That substitute was the ram, which was caught in the thicket by its horns. The ram died in Isaac’s place, and Isaac was then allowed to go free because of the death of the ram. Again, the parallels to the Day of Atonement are plain, this time with Isaac as the scapegoat and with the ram as the Lord’s goat. However, there is no mention of Isaac carrying off sins. This example is different from the previous three in that Isaac is not cast out into any wilderness but is spared instead because of the death of the ram.

Joseph and the Goat

In the case of Joseph, he was placed in a pit by his brothers, who intended to put him to death. However, he was spared when his brothers decided to sell him instead. In Joseph’s place they killed a kid of the goats and dipped Joseph’s coat in its blood. They were then able to convince their father that Joseph was dead. Thus the kid (the Lord’s goat) died in Joseph’s place, while Joseph (the live goat) was sold from the promised land into Egypt, where he would eventually prepare a way to save his family from the coming famine (see Genesis 37).

The Exodus

In the Exodus, the firstborn of the children of Israel were spared because of the firstborn lamb that was sacrificed in their stead. Then, through the sacrifice of this lamb, Israel was allowed to escape from slavery in Egypt. They were thereby set free but not into the promised land. Rather they were set free into the wilderness, just as the scapegoat was freed into the wilderness.

The Two Birds at the Cleansing of the Leper

Leviticus 14 records the rite of the cleansing of a leper. This rite is very similar to that of the two goats on the Day of Atonement. Instead of two goats, two birds were used. Just as the scapegoat was called the “live goat” (Leviticus 16:21), so the bird that is not killed was called the “living bird” (Leviticus 14:6). After the first bird was sacrificed, the living bird was released over an open field (see Leviticus 14:7). For a field to be open it must also be uninhabited, like the wilderness into which the scapegoat was released. However, it seems clear that through the choice of wording in this version, another aspect of the scapegoat was being emphasized. In this case, the sight of the living bird set free would surely inspire thoughts of how the sacrifice of the first bird (Christ) sets us free of sin and bondage (leprosy).

Christ and Barabbas

The name Barabbas is Aramaic and means “son of the father.” [9] Thus when Christ and Barabbas stood before Pilate, there is a distinct similarity to the moment when both Christ and Satan stood before God and when the two goats stood before the high priest. As before, the one without sin was chosen to die. The major distinction is that in this case Barabbas was released, while Satan was cast out. [10] Further, there is no indication that Barabbas carried the sins of anyone but himself.

An Interpretation of the Scapegoat

So what was the scapegoat supposed to represent? Now that we have reviewed some of the various scriptural parallels, we are in a better position to analyze the conflicting theories in more detail. Most Latter-day Saint commentators together with most other conservative Christian commentators see the scapegoat as a symbol of the Savior, [11] whereas the midrashic Jewish writers, most scholarly interpreters, and several Latter-day Saint commentators interpret the scapegoat as the symbol of a demon or of Satan himself. [12] Let us analyze these interpretations in more detail.

The interpretation of the scapegoat as a symbol of Christ is based upon the fact that the scapegoat figuratively bore the sins of Israel out into the wilderness (see Leviticus 16:21–22). Since Christ has literally “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4), it seems reasonable to equate the scapegoat with the vicarious sacrifice of the Savior. Jacob Milgrom counters this argument by saying that “the goat is not the vicarious substitute for Israel because there is no indication that it was punished (e.g., put to death) or demonically attacked in Israel’s place. Instead of being an offering or a substitute, the goat is simply the vehicle to dispatch Israel’s impurities and sins to the wilderness/netherworld. The banishment of evil to an inaccessible place is a form of elimination amply attested in the ancient Near East.” [13] This view ignores the fact that banishment itself can be a punishment; in fact, it is one of the fundamental punishments for sin illustrated in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. Thus it is entirely plausible to see in the scapegoat a substitute, suffering separation from God and the community in our place. Such a separation can indeed be seen in Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” spoken on the cross (Matthew 27:46). Under such an interpretation, Christ was cut off from His Father’s presence and spiritual influence as part of His payment for our sins, thereby temporarily suffering spiritual death for us.

Another way of seeing Christ in the scapegoat was expressed by William Brown: “The people did not see the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat; in the scapegoat, however, burdened with the nation’s sins, being sent away into the wilderness, they had a visible and striking symbol set before their wondering eyes of the complete forgiveness of their sins as a nation, by God. Their sins were for ever removed out of His sight. . . . [Thus the two goats are] two features of the same picture.” [14]

In driving the goat out of the encampment before the eyes of the people, it is possible to see Christ, carrying his cross outside of the city, symbolically into the wilderness, where he would be sacrificed.

Yet this interpretation fails to explain several of our parallels previously noted. For example, in the pre-earth life it was Satan, not Christ, who played the role of the scapegoat and was cast out. Furthermore, during Christ’s own trial, it was Barabbas who was cast out in the manner of the scapegoat, while Christ himself played the role of the Lord’s goat in being put to death. Although a later Jewish interpretation says that the scapegoat was also put to death, [15] the biblical text makes it clear that the scapegoat was not put to death but released alive into the wilderness.

This brings us to our second major interpretation, namely, that the scapegoat represented either a devil or Satan himself. This argument usually revolves around the meaning of the Hebrew word for scapegoat, namely, azazel. While noting that the term could simply mean “the goat determined for dismissal” or “a rough and difficult place,” Milgrom believes that the term is instead a proper name, the name for a demon. [16] He also points out that this is the dominant view in the Jewish postbiblical period and that

it is supported by (1) the parallel syntactic structures of this verse by which one goat is designated “for the Lord,” the other “for Azazel,” which imply that Azazel is the personal name of a divine being. (2) The wilderness to which the goat is dispatched (vv 10, 22) is the habitation of demons (e.g., Isa. 13:21; 34:14; Bar 4:35; Tob 8:3; Matt. 12:34; Luke 11:24; Rev. 18:2). (3) 1 Enoch 10:4–5 relates that the angel Raphael is commanded to bind the rebellious demon ‘Azel hand and foot and banish him to a wilderness. . . . The most plausible explanation is that Azazel is the name of a demon. who ruled in the wilderness.’ [17]

This interpretation does not necessitate that Israel believed in demons, for “demons often survive as figures of speech (e.g., ‘gremlins’) long after they have ceased to be figures of belief. Accordingly, the mention of a demon’s name in a scriptural text is not automatic testimony to living belief in him.” [18] Daniel H. Ludlow and Gerald N. Lund opine that Azazel represented Satan himself, head of the kingdom of demons. [19]

Terry Szink and John Welch further indicate that the scapegoat represented Satan or sinners. They have argued that King Benjamin made reference to the ritual of the two goats when he taught that we must either be called by the name of Christ and be found on the right hand of God, or be called “by some other name” and be found on the left hand of God. This presumes that the Lord’s goat would always be found on the right hand, while the scapegoat, Azazel, the “other [demonic] name” (Mosiah 5:10), was always found on the left hand. [20] Just as those on the right hand are sealed Christ’s (see Mosiah 5:15), so it is possible to be sealed the devil’s (see Alma 24:25), taking his name upon us. Those so sealed by the name of Christ or Satan are thereby marked for ownership, either owned by Christ or by Satan. This may be what is happening as each goat is marked or sealed “for the Lord” or “for Azazel.” [21]

This interpretation is bolstered by several of our scriptural examples. Most strikingly we can see Satan in the scapegoat in the example from the pre-earth life. This interpretation can also be seen in Cain and Abel, where Cain takes the part of the scapegoat and is cast out to the land of Nod. That Cain is playing the part of Satan is expressly pointed out, and he is called “perdition” (see Moses 5:24). That Abel was taking the part of the Savior in this event is shown by the later incorrect belief that his death actually was a sacrifice for sin. “My people have all gone astray from my precepts . . . and have said that the blood of righteous Abel was shed for sins” (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 17:4, 7). Although clearly an incorrect belief, this confusion would most likely not have taken place if Abel’s death did not at least symbolically represent the sacrifice of the Savior.

Of course there are several problems with this interpretation as well. Most notably, Satan’s banishment from heaven did not remove the sins of the penitent people as the scapegoat’s banishment expressly does. Only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can actually remove sin in that manner. Further, in several of our examples (namely, Israel, Joseph, Ishmael, and perhaps the live bird), the individuals released into the wilderness have no special sins laid upon them at all, and in those cases it is difficult to argue that they represented Satan.

How then are we to interpret the scapegoat ritual? I propose that the answer to this question is found in the two major penalties for sin, namely, physical and spiritual death. I propose that the two goats did not directly represent Christ or Satan. Rather, they represented the more abstract principles of physical and spiritual death, respectively. If the scapegoat represents spiritual death we can see both Satan and Christ in the scapegoat. We can either see Christ suffering the penalty of spiritual death for us so that we can be set free, or we can see Satan, Cain, or ourselves, if we are unrepentant, suffering the penalty of spiritual death for sin. This view allows the broader interpretation demanded by the seemingly contradictory evidence.

It is also possible to see the scapegoat in an even larger context. Although the scapegoat expressly carries off sins, it can also be seen in the context of the scriptural accounts, in which an individual or group is released because of the sacrifice of another without carrying off any sins. Examples include the firstborn lamb which allowed the firstborn of Israel to live, or the two birds at the cleansing of a leper, one killed and the other set free, or the ram which allowed the freeing of Isaac. In these instances there is no mention of the carrying off of sins. Thus another possible interpretation is that the second goat (the live goat) is spared through the death of the first goat. Thus it is possible to see ourselves in the scapegoat, preserved alive through the death of the Lord’s goat, Jesus Christ, or even the casting out of our own impurities from ourselves through repentance. [22]


Symbolism is inherently flexible in its interpretation and can mean many different things to different people as they are guided by the Spirit to see what they need to see at a given time in their lives. There were many insights that could have been seen and understood from the rites of the two goats. As the two goats were placed before the high priest, a discerning Israelite might have been reminded of the time when Jehovah and Satan both stood before the Father, and they might have looked forward to the time when Christ and Barabbas would stand before Pilate and the great future Atonement would be made. They might have thought of their own future judgment, and, as did King Benjamin, desire to take upon themselves the name of Christ rather than the name of Azazel or Satan.

As the goat for Jehovah was chosen, those present could have imagined how the live goat was spared death through the sacrifice of the goat that represented Jehovah and thereby understood how they were spared eternal death through the death of Jehovah Himself. They may have been reminded how the firstborn of Israel were spared through the sacrifice of the lamb, or of how Isaac was spared through the death of the ram, or how one of the two birds in the rite of the cleansing of the leper were spared and set free by the death of the other.

As the innocent scapegoat was solemnly passed through the camp carrying the Israelites’ sins, they could have seen the Savior carrying His cross outside the city, or they might have been reminded of Isaiah’s teaching that Christ “hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Thus in the two goats they could have seen both penalties for sin being taken, one penalty taken by each goat, each representing Jesus Christ, their substitute, so that they did not have to suffer those penalties themselves (see D&C 19:16–18).

They could also have seen the need to remove those things that are unclean from their midst, just as Satan was forced from the presence of God because of his uncleanliness or as Cain was forced from the land where his parents dwelt into the land of Nod. Through this symbol they could have found a renewed desire to keep their lives clean of all impurity.

Thus, we have shown how the temple rite of the two goats on the Day of Atonement could have represented many things. We have shown how this rite’s common interpretations, which seem to be mutually exclusive at first glance, can be harmonized, and we have shown that the rite parallels and gives added meaning to many of the significant stories found elsewhere in the scriptures.


[1] “The Epistle of Barnabas,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979–81), 1:141; “Fragments from the Lost Writings of Justin,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:301.

[2] “Origen Against Celsus,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:592; “Irenaeus Against Heresies,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:340.

[3] In fact, modern discussions of the subject on the internet can get rather nasty, with one group claiming that another is not Christian for holding one view or another on the identification of the scapegoat.

[4] See notes 11 and 12.

[5] Bruce C. Hafen, “Covenant Marriage,” in Ensign, November 1996, 26.

[6] James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995, 1996), 91, nos. 5110–13.

[7] Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 17:7, implies that some people wrongly thought that Abel died for their sins.

[8] Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, ed. Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book, 1989), 574.

[9] See Bible Dictionary, “Barabbas,” 619.

[10] The comparison between Barabbas and the scapegoat has also been made by Hugh Nibley: “That’s the idea of the pharmakos, the scapegoat. He goes out and perishes; one person dies for all of them. Then at Easter time it’s Barabbas and one person is released. The kings must die for the people” (Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon—Semester 2: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988–1990 [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1993], 370).

[11] For examples of this interpretation by Latter-day Saint and Christian commentators, see Robert J. Matthews, A Bible! A Bible! (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990), 49; William Brown, The Tabernacle, Its Priests and Its Services, Updated Edition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 139; “Tertullian Against Marcion,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:327; Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 678; Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 436; Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 5: The Gospels (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 435; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Melbourne, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 333.

[12] For examples of this interpretation of the scapegoat see Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 167; Gerald N. Lund, Jesus Christ, Key to the Plan of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 66–67; Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, in the Anchor Bible series (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 1020–21.

[13] Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1021.

[14] Brown, The Tabernacle, 139.

[15] Milgrom writes, “According to the rabbis, the goat was pushed off a cliff. Philo, however, presumes that the goat was allowed to live. Killing the goat was not essential, for the high priest would resume the services as soon as he was notified that the goat had reached the wilderness,” Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1045.

[16] Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1020.

[17] Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1020–021.

[18] T. H. Gaster, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G. A. Buttrick (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962), 818, s.v. demon; see also 325–24, 817–24.

[19] See Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study, 67; and Lund, Jesus Christ, 66–67. See also C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, "The Third Book of Moses," in Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 1:398.

[20] Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” in King Benjamin’s Speech Made Simple, ed. by John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 145.

[21] Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1020.

[22] Hugh W. Nibley gives a fourth related interpretation: “In the scapegoat, Israel recognized that the enemy they were driving with stones and curses was the evil that was in themselves. They were the bad guys” (Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, ed. Don E. Norton [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book, 1992], 75).